Nuno Mendes’ adventurous new Portuguese establishment is a triumph, writes Olenka Hamilton
At Taberna do Mercado – the latest venture of Nuno Mendes of Chiltern Firehouse fame - the most unusual thing is the dessert menu. As someone with a proud reputation for ordering the weirdest and most revolting sounding thing on the menu, my gaze was drawn directly to the steamed egg yolk, pork fat and port caramel pudding before even considering the starters.
If it is allowed, I will skip to the end of the meal to describe it, such was its greatness. Following a taste, a moment of silence and a sharp intake of breath, my dinner companion exclaimed with a kind of awe: ‘I’m so happy to have tasted that. What are you going to write about it?’ What indeed.
Miguel, our dashing attendant Portuguese chef, complete with an astonishing head of thick and shiny black ringlets, said we should expect something similar to the filling of a Portuguese custard tart.
And it’s along those lines – like a panna cotta but also a crème brûlée, with a hint of zabaglione, but denser, weirder. In fact, just better. The beautiful golden cuboid in its charming blue porcelain dish is a slice of syrup-infused gelatinous lard, which takes many pleasing and practically tantric moments to melt in your mouth. If only, like an Everlasting Gobstopper, it would never stop. It’s rich, creamy and eggy - but not too much so. I can go on: it's also tangy, with a hint of savoury deriving from the pork fat, and perfectly complemented by the bitter port, which gives out hints of aniseed.
But I don't want to suggest that the evening, so superb at its end, didn't also have a superb beginning. We start with the radish and seaweed salad - served, like everything here, in one of their boldly-coloured porcelain sharing plates, which match the daring of the food. The salad, for instance, is dainty and crisp, while the pig’s ear - salted and cooked overnight in coriander, garlic and herbs - is just right, without too much fat: the pink grapefruit cuts right through it. And the house white – soft and reasonably priced at £6 a glass – is the ideal accompaniment.
Next up is a course of tinned fish. You heard that correctly: fish in a tin served in a restaurant. It's a Portuguese specialty, a thing of genius (especially when eaten straight out of the tin with a fork) – it's the simple made to be rather spectacular. The smoked mackerel is cured in sugar and salt and covered by strips of delicate pork belly and pickled kohlrabi (which looks deceptively like beetroot, but is sweet and sharp). ‘Surf and turf in a tin,’ my wise companion suggests.
The successes began to amass with nearly alarming frequency. The next course turned out to be my personal favourite. This was unexpected, since the initial visual impact was rather surprising: the porridge-like demeanour of the cuttlefish and pigs trotters coentrada belied its deliciousness, and the sophisticated way the meat mingled with the caramelised shallots, garlic and vinegar. It’s comforting and homely, with suspicions of spice and citrus.
If someone asked you what you thought the traditional way to finish a Portuguese meal was, you might venture a glass of porto and a wheel of cheese. How wrong you would be. Enter the Bifana, ‘a massive pork bap’, as my companion so delicately puts it. It’s a sandwich, yes, but not just any sandwich.
Miguel is passionate about the Bifana and of all his presentations this one is the most heartfelt. We stare at his ringlets which ripple like springs as he talks about the bread, which is from Madeira and made from sweet potatoes. He is also eloquent on the pork, which is thin-sliced and covered in a fermented red pepper paste, garlic mayonnaise, pickled cabbage and a fennel salad. It comes with a bottle of American mustard, and is my companion’s favourite.
Taberna do Mercado is a wonderful little place, with a farmhouse feel, parquet floors, wooden chairs, and white marble tables. The food is brave and delicious. It's also affordable, with a good ambience - and the ringlety service is five star.
Mendes is running a series of travel dinners. The next, which will be held at Taberna do Mercado, focuses on Portuguese influence in Macau. Tickets can be bought here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nuno-mendes-a-piece-of-the-portuguese-puzzle-macau-tickets-34166153886?aff=erelexpmlt
Olenka Hamilton is a Researcher at Spear’s